The category continues to be one of the most important and innovative in the growth of produce sales
Packaging has become a key component in promoting and merchandising fresh-cut produce. “Having the right packaging in the produce department is critical,” says Jenny Stornetta, marketing communications manager with Apio Inc. in Guadalupe, CA. “Among the most important factors are how it maximizes consumers’ ability to see the freshness of the ingredients, provides key nutritional and ingredient information, and creates optimal merchandising and display options on the shelf.”
The presentation of the package is almost as important as the product in the package according to Keith Cox, produce category manager at K-VA-T Food Stores with 132 units and based in Abingdon, VA. “The package must present the product well and stand out among all the other products surrounding it,” he says.
A study conducted by the Cleveland-based market research firm, Freedonia Group Inc., shows demand for fresh vegetable packaging is forecast to climb 3 percent per year to $2.8 billion in 2019. Demand for fresh fruit packaging is forecast to climb 3.7 percent per year to $2.5 billion in 2019, notes the study.
Convenience, grab-and-go trends and serving-size are all drivers for increased packaging. The Freedonia study predicts packaging growth to “outpace that of vegetable production based on favorable prospects for fresh-cut, ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook products, which offer increased consumer convenience and require more packaging than most bulk products. Greater use of value-added packaging for extended freshness, increased offerings of single-serving packaged items and ongoing introductions of new fresh-cut produce products will also drive gains as consumers look for healthy snack alternatives as convenient as traditional snack offerings.”
Precut, packaged fresh vegetables have become a major player in produce at George’s Dreshertown Shop n’ Bag, an upscale independent grocer located in Dresher, PA. “We see this increase for the same reason as bagged salads increased,” says Nancy Grace, produce manager. “Customers love the convenience of no prep, the variety and (for some) the comfort of knowing that they are not buying produce that was exposed to the general public.”
Consumer concern over wastefulness can be another motivator for fresh-cut packaging demand. “A lot of people focus on the convenience of fresh-cut, but it is also cost effective by saving on food waste,” says Grant Ferguson, vice president at Chantler Packaging Inc., in Mississauga Ontario. “For example, a small-household shopper making stir fry may prefer to buy precut ingredients as opposed to purchasing large quantities of each and having a lot left over — leading to possible waste.”
Specially Designed To Optimize Efficiency
Packaging options are designed with each product’s specific needs in mind resulting in an optimized product for retailer, consumer and marketer. “Fresh berries have historically been packed in a rigid container, but sustainability initiatives as well as the growing snacking category really challenged us to think outside the box,” explains Janis McIntosh, packaging and product manager with Naturipe Farms located in Estero, FL. “In the snacking area flexible films are key.”
Mark Pins, marketing director with State Garden Inc., located in Chelsea, MA agrees that flexible packaging is important. “It helps extend shelf-life and maintains product quality and integrity,” he says.
Flexible packaging offers a multitude of benefits for bagged salads and vegetables as noted by Apio’s products. “It can be easily adapted to a variety of ingredients to allow for the proper respiration rates and it offers exceptional operational efficiencies allowing processors to maximize the speed of producing finished goods,” says Stornetta.
According to Pins, laser perforations (versus hot needle) is another key advancement. “It allows for a more consistent respiration rate,” he says. “This extends shelf-life and helps maintain product quality and integrity. It also protects the bag from rips and tears.”
Advancements in surface inks helped suppliers such as State Garden reduce the amount of film they use. “New inks stand up on their own and don’t require an extra layer of film or laminate covering,” says Pins. “This is particularly relevant in the packaging of our three SKUs of steamable/microwavable bagged spinach.”
With some stores still managing fresh-cut in-house, the industry must up the ante to provide successful alternatives. “Fresh-cut packaging is key to compete with these types of retailers,” says McIntosh of Naturipe. “A fresh-cut provider would have to offer something very unique and cost effective that could not be duplicated in the back room of a store.”
Appealing To Consumers
Packaging developments focus on benefits to consumers in areas of cooking convenience or product appearance. “Consumers generally make purchases with their eyes, so any time you can change the look of a package for the better the consumer will notice the product as a new item even though the package contains the same product,” says K-VA-T’s Cox.
Anti-fog technology was a significant development in recent years to improve the appearance of fresh-cut. “Anti-fog is an invaluable way to improve the clarity of produce packaging, allowing consumers to fully see if the product inside is fresh,” says Stornetta of Apio. “We will continue to see more produce suppliers using this application.”
State Garden Inc., has been using packaging with anti-fogging technology for more than 20 years. “It’s a critical feature as it allows the consumer to see our product,” says Pins.
George’s Dreshertown Shop n’ Bag reports tremendous success with anti-fog technology. “The anti-fog, polypropylene bags are a retailer’s dream,” says Grace. “Products far outsell their neighbors in ordinary plastic or mesh bags and seem to protect produce very well. We started to package our own fresh green beans in poly-vented bags as soon as we could, and it increased our sales dramatically.”
Peel and re-seal technology is another advancement State Garden adopted for its Simple Beginnings Celery Sticks. “They are a great added-value for our consumer — making it easy to tightly re-seal the package multiple times,” says Pins.
Advances in Steamable packaging are also on the rise. “The convenience of fresh-cut gets even better when you can steam these vegetables right in the bag,” says Grace. “It’s a win-win for both customer and retailers.”
For K-VA-T stores, steamable packaging has become a steady staple. “Steamable packages grew at a fast rate when they first hit the market,” explains Cox. “They now leveled off with a good steady pace, and we feel these packages definitely have a place in the produce department.”
With Steamable packaging so popular, Ocean Mist Farms located in Castroville, CA, is expanding its Season and Steam line of fresh convenient vegetables with cleaned and ready to cook fresh artichokes. “The Season and Steam line first launched in 2012 with whole and multiple cuts of Brussels sprouts,” says Diana McClean director of marketing. “It expanded to Kalettes in 2015 and now includes artichokes.”
Ocean Mist’s Season and Steam fresh vegetables package technology allows the user to open the bag prior to cooking, pre-season the contents to their flavor preference, reseal with the zip lock and steam by microwave all within the same bag. “The ability to pre-season the fresh vegetable contents prior to cooking is an exclusive convenience attribute to the produce department,” says McClean. “Some people are intimidated by preparing and even eating artichokes. This package takes all the intimidation out of the process, so home cooks can easily make perfectly cooked artichokes in seven minutes.”
Into The Future
New ideas for future fresh-cut packaging are making their way to produce from other industries. “Some new vendors have experience in other industries such as meat and pharmaceuticals — giving them some unique perspectives,” says Naturipe’s McIntosh. “More companies are trying to sell their unique film solutions with shelf-life extension properties into produce.” Apio Inc., found several new packaging techniques useful. “Hermetically sealed, rigid-to-rigid packaging, originally developed for products such as deli meats and pastas, is now found in the produce department,” says Stornetta. “More earth-friendly packaging reducing the amount of total materials through the use of thinner films, removal of lids, and printed film replacing applied labels among other developments, is a trend that will continue to grow, both in and out of produce.”
Stornetta also reports high-graphic cardboard sleeves, used in the frozen and deli categories for awhile, are now finding their way into produce. “This type of package design offers greater visibility and print quality while allowing consumers to see the freshness of the product by removing the sleeve from the container,” she says.
Established in the 1930s, Chantler Packaging, Inc., traditionally focused on a variety of industries, but since the year 2000, its main focus has been food packaging. Chantler Packaging’s PrimePro shelf-life-extension technology is designed to reduce food waste from the beginning of the fresh-cut program.
“If a grower is shipping whole pears or broccoli, the grower or shipper uses our PrimePro shelf life-extension technology to ensure there is no food waste upon arrival at the fresh-cut facility,” explains Ferguson. “The fresh-cut people can build a whole story on what they are saving on food waste.”
However, despite much innovation from outside the industry, Naturipe’s McIntosh credits much of the innovation to the produce industry. “Changes are coming directly from the produce industry and their supporting vendors,” she says. “Produce demands complex packaging solutions, and no one knows those needs better than people close to produce.”